Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Is Church Membership Important? (Part 1)

It is a joyful time at Neon Reformed Presbyterian Church. We are about to receive four communing members and three noncommuning members into the fold. Praise God from whom all blessings flow!

Lately I’ve been thinking about church membership. Why is it important? Does Jesus want us to be members of his church? Would it be sinful to refuse membership in a local church? In considering these and other questions we first need to define the church.

“Church” is the English translation of the Greek word ekklesia, which means “assembly.” The church is the assembly set apart by God to be his treasured possession (Deut. 7:6). The Bible speaks of the church in two different senses. Sometimes “church” refers to the whole company of the elect. We call this the invisible church (WCF 25.1). Other times it refers to those who are assembling together in various locations under the same doctrinal confession. We call this the visible church (WCF 25.2). This distinction is clearly taught in Romans 9:6b, “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” In other words, not all members of the visible church (i.e. all those throughout the world who profess the true religion and their children) are members of the invisible church (i.e. the elect).

But what about the reverse? Must all members of the invisible church also be members of the visible church? Do the elect always enter into visible church membership before death? 

In response to this question many appeal to the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43). Assuming the thief was converted from pagan idolatry just moments before his death, he would have been a member of the invisible church but never a member of the visible church. But the text does not tell us whether this man is a new convert from paganism or not. Here’s what we know from the text:

  • He was a thief enduring the death sentence (v. 39).
  • He feared God (v. 40).
  • He understood his punishment at the hands of men was just (v. 41a).
  • He understood Jesus’ punishment at the hands of men was unjust (v. 41b).
  • He saw the kingdom of God by faith in Christ (i.e. he believed the gospel) (v. 42).
  • He was elect (v. 43).  

We do not know the timing of his conversion or his involvement in the visible church up to this point. It is possible that he was a circumcised Hebrew, born to believing parents into the visible church. It is also possible he had already professed faith in Christ as a member of the visible church prior to his crucifixion. Is it really unthinkable that a true believer could commit such a crime? So while it is possible the thief is the only biblical example of a deathbed conversion, we cannot say that with certainty.

Nonetheless, we must at least acknowledge the theoretical possibility of such. God can save a man who is outside the visible church on his deathbed. This is beyond dispute. But even in acknowledging such a possibility we confess that the visible church “is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (WCF 25.2, emphasis added). In other words, the ordinary experience of those whom God has chosen to save (i.e. the invisible church of the elect) includes membership in the visible church (i.e. being assembled with others who profess the true religion). To believe with one’s heart ordinarily includes confessing with one’s mouth and joining one’s voice with others of like confession (Rom. 10:10).

In part two we will define the visible church more precisely and begin to look at why membership in it is of such vital importance.


Larry said...

Brothers, there is more information about the thief on the cross in the other gospels. Mt 27:38,44.

M. Jay Bennett said...

I don't see a specific reference to this thief in Matthew.